No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States

By Nancy F. Cott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Colonial Mosaic
1600–1760

Jane Kamensky

Although the varieties of female experience among the native North American peoples who first encountered Europeans in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were nearly endless, some unifying plot lines are visible. Chief among these is a sense of doubleness: of cooperation combined with resistance. Of living one’s life according to two different sets of beliefs about what women were, should be, must be.

The European women who migrated to the North American colonies also knew two worlds. It was in England that women like Margaret Winthrop learned what it meant to be female—and pondered how their roles might change in a strange new world across the Atlantic. Winthrop was born Margaret Tyndal, daughter of a wealthy landowner in Essex, England. In 1618, at the age of twenty-seven, she pledged her love and obedience, along with a substantial dowry, to John Winthrop, an aspiring young lawyer from the village of Groton.

John Winthrop had become an ardent believer in the growing movement to purge the Church of England of its Catholic, or “popish,” practices. He thought of himself as a Puritan: one who wished to reform the Anglican faith from within. He did not—at least not at first—wish to remove himself from the “old” world. In the end, though, Winthrop’s passion for a godly life would take him far from what he saw as the increasing spiritual corruption of England. As a prolonged economic depression worsened and the noose of government repression tightened around Puritan believers, he looked across the Atlantic. The several North American outposts recently established by the New England Company (later the Massachusetts Bay Company) seemed to him to represent the best hope for building a godly community. In May 1629, John Winthrop wrote to Margaret of his dawning belief that Massachusetts would “provide a shelter and a hiding place for us and ours.” By the end of August, they had decided to journey across the ocean. At the end of that journey, John Winthrop would emerge as a central figure in the exodus of Puritan families that came to be known as “the Great Migration.” Between 1629 and 1640, some twenty-one thousand English men, women, and children migrated to New

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